Challenges facing the intellectual disability sector

by Brian O'Donnell, CEO, National Federation of Voluntary Bodies


There has probably rarely been a more exciting, if somewhat significantly converging at the present time, identifying challenging, time for people with disabilities, their families, the services who support them and the policy makers. As I write we are in the process of electing a new Government who will, over the next few weeks, be putting together a new Programme for Government. In doing so, they will have regard to the National Disability Strategy and the Value for Money & Policy Review and other important national policy initiatives. A key catalyst for the progression of change in the lives of people with disabilities and the organisations supporting them has been the adoption of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Clearly major changes in how services and supports are configured and delivered will become an immediate priority. The National Federation of Voluntary Bodies has been reflecting on how best to meet the challenges inherent in these important developments. The Board and member organisations of the National Federation have explicitly stated that they are up for the challenges presented, which they will address in a proactive and constructive fashion.

However, as we embark on this very important next phase in the evolution of the intellectual disability sector in Ireland, we do so in the knowledge that we will not be accompanied on our journey by some very important people who have played a key role in the development of the sector, both in terms of services and policy over the past number of decades. The National Federation of Voluntary Bodies acknowledges the critical roles played by Mr Paul Ledwidge, Chief Executive of St Michael’s House; Ms Maura Nash, Chief Executive of the COPE Foundation; Ms Marian Keigher, Chief Executive of the Brothers of Charity Services Roscommon—all of whom have recently announced their decision to retire. In so doing, they join Mr John O’Dea, former Executive Director of Western Care Association, and Mr Michael Noone, former Managing Director of Sunbeam House Services, who retired from their positions in 2010- All of them are people of the highest calibre who made huge contributions, not just to the development of their own organisations, but also at the national level by ensuring that the full extent of the unmet needs of persons with intellectual disability was understood by government and, through their advocacy, by having those needs substantially met. They will be missed, but their professionalism, dedication, commitment and pioneering efforts will act as a formidable example as we brace ourselves to meet the many challenges ahead.

We should also acknowledge at this time the outstanding contribution made by Mr John Moloney, TD, during his term as Minister for Disability and Mental Health. During very difficult times his strident advocacy on behalf of people with disabilities at the cabinet table meant that disability services were protected from the worst of the funding cuts and his efforts in this regard are appreciated by all of us in the disability sector.
an urgent need to radically change the ways in which people with disabilities are supported to live ordinary lives of their choosing, as citizens and valued members of their communities. This creates many challenges, but also opportunities to do things differently and more effectively. Services will increasingly be based on choice and focussed on inclusion, ensuring that ordinary life experiences are available to people with intellectual disabilities who will have more control in the decision making processes relating to matters affecting their lives. This will be achieved through a reconfiguration of current service delivery models, including the individualisation of supports which will be enabled by individualised funding mechanisms, including a facilitation of self-directed services.

The summary of key proposals from the Review of Disability Policy (Department of Health and Children 2010) recently published by the Department of Health & Children, indicates that the current model of service provision will be unsustainable and thus requires innovative reform. In this regard, the National Federation of Voluntary Bodies believes that civil society will play a more active role in shaping change and addressing needs. There will be increased and urgent emphasis on the development of more integrated approaches, greater dialogue and consultation between governmental and non-governmental organisations and greater transparency and accountability on the part of all the actors in terms of their activities, priorities and outcomes. The National Federation of Voluntary Bodies will develop an outreach programme to partner with existing community groups at a national level in order to leverage the potential in natural supports for people with intellectual disability at every level of community life—sporting, recreation, citizenship, youth organisations etc. The aim of the programme will be to animate national connections in order to develop capacity for inclusion and belonging of people with intellectual disability within each of these organisations and to mobilise the national potential in each for stimulating social inclusion.

This is just one example of what ‘different’ will look like. Clearly the challenge as we look to the future will be to ensure that the services and supports are sustainable, relevant and that they bring a measurable added value to the quality of people’s lives. The National Federation of Voluntary Bodies is committed to working closely with the people we support and their families, government and our funders to ensure that this challenge is met in a proactive and enthusiastic way.